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A Journey to a New Land

Multimedia Library

Dr. Rolf Mathewes

Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University

Early Plant Life on Haida Gwaii

The plants that we find before the arrival of the lodgepole pine are basically a tundra assemblage. And some of these are plants that people could have used for food such as crowberries (which produce black, edible berries) and bunchberries, there are a lot of plants that are typical of tundra such as bistort which is a small plant in the Polygonaceae family, or the dock family - relatives of rhubarbs and such, and these provide both edible greens and seeds that could be eaten. Those plants were there. And many of these plants are now still eaten by native peoples in northern Alaska and Siberia, the Aleuts and Eskimos still eat these in the summertime. Crowberries, the roots of various herbs such as cinquefoils and potentillas – these were very important to coastal native tribes as food, the starchy roots were cooked and boiled and tasted a bit like sweet potatoes. We have evidence that in some of these early non-treed environments we had lots of horsetails, which when they are young make edible greens, and abundant evidence of ferns as well. Many ferns are in fact edible - the little green fiddleheads when they first come out in the spring that look like a coiled violin tip, where the leaves are coiled up, these can be harvested and are edible.

Plants could be used in a variety of ways, not just as foods. for example, cow parsnip is a plant FOR which we find evidence from fossil pollen and fossil seeds. It looks like a giant parsley plant that has huge stems that look like celery. It’s well known by ethnobotanists that these stems were highly prized by all native groups and harvested and eaten much like celery or other crunchy fresh green vegetables. We have lots of evidence that they were present in this interval and so would have been heavily used.

There are many plants like the grasses and the sedges which show up in the fossil pollen record as being probably the predominant landscape element. We don’t have trees, maybe some willow type shrubs, but the dominant plants would have been grasses, sedges and rushes. Many of these were tough, fibrous plants whose fibres could have been used for making ropes, clothing, fishing line, or nets. There are a number of fibrous plants that could have been used for technology. There is not much evidence of wood. At present we associate West Coast Indian technology with such wood as red cedar, which is soft and easily worked, and can be hollowed out and made into boxes, bowls, implements, clothing. Since there was no woody vegetation around, except for maybe some willow shrubs, wood would have been a rare commodity as far as we know. Perhaps there might have been some old driftwood they could use, but wood was a rare commodity.

Plants were used for fibre, food, and medicine. Together with the predominantly marine sources of food, shellfish, fish and sea mammals, these plants would have been an important addition to their diet and their technology.